Sorrow

By Rev. Elizabeth Rechter, Executive Director

 
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To be aware you’re alive is genuinely painful, but if you’re fortunate enough to feel not merely who you are but that you are, you understand more than others do why sorrow is universal and inescapable.
— The Cloud of Unknowing
 

For most of my life, sorrow has been a kind of wallpaper feeling inside. It is always there. It isn’t the furniture I sit on, or even pictures that hang on the wall, but an ever-present backdrop. I used to worry about this sorrow, as if something needed to be repaired or healed. Somewhere early on I picked up the unspoken but common understanding that happy is good and sad is not good. I believed if I could get to the bottom of things and uncover the injuries, healing would come and joy would dawn and the wallpaper would be gone. 

But that day has not come. And now I know it need not come. Being present to feelings of sadness and grief as life brings them is important work. To expect this work permanently to rid us of sorrow is to want to erase from our lives something essential and beautiful about what it means to be human and holy.

Helping me understand this are my recent conversations with the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, who has become a trusted companion. A friend recommended a new translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher, which I like. The original was written in the mid-14th century by an anonymous Christian mystic. The contemporary practice of Centering Prayer follows instructions from The Cloud.

The author refers to Godly sorrow. This “sorrow and the deep longing it stirs in your soul are requirements for spiritual growth. Everyone has reasons to be sad, but if you are someone who feels your existence deeply, you’ll experience sorrow in an especially profound way.” To have Godly sorrow for myself and for the human community, for all of creation, is to acknowledge my humanness and to embody compassion.

I thought of this often this past week, as the Christian Church celebrated its annual sacred ritual of walking the way of Jesus’ suffering and death. It is a ritual of connecting deeply to Godly sorrow, a sorrow Jesus endures in his humanness, and from which new life is born on earth, expressed in our rituals of Easter. True Resurrection joy is felt only if we have walked the way of sorrow and are acquainted with its grief.

As spiritual companions, we are aware of the importance of being witness to sorrow when it ventures out into the open.  The haven of these sacred spaces for deep listening make it safe for sorrow to be visited, and when tears are sorrow’s language, we welcome them. When people apologize for crying, I am reminded of the ancient understanding that tears are holy, so holy they were collected in bottles. Psalm 56 speaks of this tradition:

You (God) have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record?

There is much to be sad about in the world. If we are present we will feel sorrow. And I can see the wallpaper that has been hanging in my soul all this time, that I mistook for darkness, was actually love.

Blessings for the Journey, 
Elizabeth+